David’s Movie Journal 3/16/11
I’m almost tempted to blend the notes on the first two entries this time around because there’s some overlap thematically, particularly in the topic of what effect the dead have on the living. But I’m nothing if not a stickler for rules. I will only combine titles if I saw them as part of a unified program, as in the last entry here.
The Strange Case of Angelica
Scott already wrote a full-length review of this film for the website, which you can find here. But I’ll still tackle it for two reasons. One, it fits the criteria for inclusion in the journal. Two, I disagree with Scott almost completely.
There was a mistake that my fellow students often made, back in film school, while creating their short film projects. Young aspirants, eager to prove their worth as artists, would make short “art” films that were so self-serious as to be nearly unwatchable. A lot of the more successful directors of sophisticated and challenging films have learned the lesson that not only is it okay to be funny in your high art movies, it’s preferable.
Manoel de Oliveira, at the age of 102, has made a light-hearted film about a very serious and grim topic. And he’s managed to keep it pretty funny throughout. Beginning with an opening scene that’s just one long shot of a rainy street and a couple people talking (or shouting), de Oliveira maintains an ironic distance from his subjects that you’d expect to see from a much younger filmmaker. Later, when our protagonist is being torn apart from the inside by feelings he can’t understand, we’re also allowed to see his behavior from an outside observer’s point of view and understand that he just looks like a weirdo.
These things that are tearing the young photographer apart, though, are not to be laughed at. At the beginning, he meets a lovely young woman who has just that day died. Suddenly, he is wrapped up in everything she is, or everything she represents to him. Hers is not the only passing in the movie. A pet bird expires. And there is much talk of the end of the old ways of doing things and their replacement by machines.
De Oliveira makes the point here that everyone and everything dies. We have processes in place to ritualize and codify their end but these things are for us, not them. The ways that we categorize our memories of the dead and move on is simple, disrespectful, maybe even crass. But the alternative is to never let go, to give each life the full, unending attention that it is due, every day. To do that would drive us all crazy and exhaust us until we joined the ranks of those we mourn so politely.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
What do you know? Scott reviewed this one too. Read it here. This time around, though, I am in agreement with him.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t have much of a story to it. A man is sick and dying and so a couple of his relatives come to spend time with him. While they’re eating dinner the first night, a couple ghosts of his dead family members show up too. Then everyone talks a lot. Some of the stories they tell are presented to us, perhaps as flashbacks or as dream sequences or maybe even alternate realities. It’s not entirely clear.
What is clear is that Uncle Boonmee is suggesting something about the nature of death and the nature of life. Not even suggesting, really. The film seems to feel very strongly that life and death are connected; that, in fact, all things – living or dead, male or female, human or animal – are a part of one unceasing awareness. The themes here would probably be much more familiar to me if I were much more familiar with Buddhism. But, as it stands, I’m happy to get lost in a vision of the world that is wholly new to me, not to mention wholly beautiful.
The compositions here are both breathtaking and highly mannered at the same time. Though never less than formally presented, these are frames that can inspire awe, laughter and terror, sometimes all in one long-held shot. Even at the beginning and end of the film, when the images are more mundane, they are meticulously built and presented.
Beginning and ending in the mundane (but with a final shot that challenges that assertion) hints at what the filmmaker may be trying to say. Perhaps he is asserting that it is only when we are near death, either our own or a loved one’s, that we begin to perceive the continuous nature of things and to understand our part in it. The closer we get, the more the walls between the physical and spiritual worlds fade away. In the end, though, we are likely to spend the majority of our time going through the motions in our tangible, fabricated and largely banal human world. However, the movie suggests, there’s beauty in that too.
Experimental Canadian shorts
It occurred to me while attending Filmforum’s program Images of Nature, or the Nature of the Image: Canadian Artists at Work, that the term “experimental film” is quite the misnomer. It implies that these filmmakers are just trying something out, seeing if it will work. There’s a devil-may-care connotation. But, really, most people making these films, which I like to refer to as “non-narrative” films, are dedicated and exacting craftsmen.
This particular program was, as the title suggests, a collection of Canadian films loosely tied together by the subject of nature. The earliest was made in 1969 and the latest in 2009. Some existed truly on the fringe of filmmaking, such as Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof’s “Light Magic,” which was made without the use of a camera. She simply pressed objects against the film and then exposed it to light. It was an unbelievably treat for the eyes, especially on a big screen.
Speaking of a big screen, John Price’s “View of the Falls from the Canadian Side” was shot and presented in scope. Humorously juxtaposing shots of Niagara Falls with shots of tourists videotaping Niagara Falls, Price uses camera technology from 1896 to comment on how our relationship to the medium has changed and how it has changed our relationship to nature.
Less humorous is David Rimmer’s “Migration.” In one memorable sequence from the brief film, a bird is frozen in mid-flight and then distorted – at first beautifully and then horribly – by the burning of the film frame from the center out. This startling image recalls time-lapse photography of rotting animal carcasses. It wasn’t to be the last time in the evening that the death of animals was referenced, either.
Before that, though, was Richard Kerr’s 20 minute “Plein Air.” Apart from the fact that the screen is mostly green, it’s almost impossible to tell this is about nature at all. It is close-up photography of Northern Ontario with the camera moving at breakneck speed. Again, this goes on for 20 minutes. But the length only deepens the experience. As the images shriek by, they are accompanied by a slow, meditative, pulsing soundtrack that invites us to focus even as the world moves in front of us at a speed too high to comprehend. Perhaps it’s an instructional video on how to deal with the world.
From that, we slowed down almost to a standstill with Ellie Epp’s “Notes in Origin,” a series of ten shots held for a couple minutes or so each. I’ll admit that, for some of them, I didn’t see whatever it was Epp wanted me to. But a couple of them, such as a low fog drifting over frozen mud or an injured goose stuck in the ice, are haunting.
The above rumination of the care and planning that goes into making one of these films was best exemplified by the highlight of the evening, Daichi Saito’s “Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis.” Entirely hand-processed, this is a series of very brief, very grainy shots of the same tree, from different angles. The way the filmmaker chooses to jump from image to image, multiple times per second at some points, and the subtle variations in coloring make the light coming through the leaves play on your eyes like a fireworks display in fast-forward. Add to that a beautifully halting and almost anti-melodic violin score and it’s an experience that might actually change the way you look at nature.
Finishing off the evening was a humorous, partially animated short called “Beauty Plus Pity,” by Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby. Contrasted with the studied seriousness of the preceding films, Duke and Battersby approach humankind’s alternately destructive and reverent relationship to nature with a sardonic wit, including such disparate elements as a song about God going senile and a robot voice narrating about the joys of hunting. It could have been preachy if it weren’t so funny and it was a cheeky note to end on, making us think back about the last 70 minutes we’d spent worshiping the outdoors from our comfortable movie theater seats.